Acclaimed New Zealand-born poet Amy Brown on how the first months of motherhood blasted her writing life – and, eventually, inspired her radically honest new verse journal.
The night after birth, when the milk came in, a midwife gave me her pen. I was supposed to use it to write the times of feeds, their length, and whether they were from both breasts. Vital statistics. I felt my disorganisation swell. The crooked columns I drew on a hospital serviette instilled no confidence in my ability to keep our hours-old baby alive. I became superstitious about filling these columns with symbols, to ward off what happened in the recurring nightmare I’d had during pregnancy (and the year of trying): mislaying my newborn. Where are you? I’d ask, pacing around strange houses. If I found the baby, it had always shrunk (guinea pig sized) or turned into a kitten.
So I kept up the data entry, graduating from napkins to notebooks. After charting the essentials, I’d turn the page and write something else. The first night was a description of what I remembered of the birth – trying to contain rather than be contained by what had happened. The next was a portrait of the hospital, thick lens of hormones magnifying things like the sting of the twenty-year-old midwife scolding me for an incompetently loose swaddle. Candid, mundane minutiae. It is too grand to call these entries poetry, but they did tend to have short lines, mostly because of the notebook’s narrow pages, but perhaps also due to the wide margins of my brittle mind at that time. It felt natural to fracture sentences.
‘Are you writing much?’ I was asked (but can’t remember when, or by whom). Yes and no. I was writing more regularly than I had in years, but these words were just another fluid to be expressed, a by-product of the birth, sharing the same pages as the record of feeds, sleeps and excretions, dotted with sprays of foremilk. Technically, this was writing, but not the sort that counts. Just compulsion. Free therapy to moderate my mood and monitor my mental changes – trying to trace how the shrinking grey matter and specialised neural networks defined as “baby brain” were manifesting for me.
As the weeks of daily or nightly writing passed – mostly on the couch with a sleeping baby in my left arm, or a baby drinking from my left breast – my syntax and vocabulary altered. I guess on the first night, aside from the recent trauma and exhaustion of the birthday itself, I was pretty well rested – yet to feel the two-hourly feeding regimen that left the floor rising and falling like a lift during my chopped-up waking hours. After a few months, this degree of sleep deprivation seemed to ease. I began typing these entries and considered giving them a title. The catharsis of writing was one impetus; a new one was the prospect of a reader, which was likely always there, deep down. I tell myself and friends that I don’t know why I’m compelled to “share” this dark, private time, because it feels borderline obscene to do so. One friend, after reading an excerpt online, asked if she shouldn’t have; it felt wrong, to her, to have this view of her friends’ marriage and parenthood. On the other hand, to turn my journal of the first four months of motherhood into a book feels predictably Faustian: selling my soul for a new publication on a topic that is cringingly marketable. Frank self-portraits of maternity are common now, which makes my own small version no less exposing, but probably less daring or politically necessary.
In Jia Tolentino’s essay ‘The I in Internet’, from her collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, about how personal identities are manipulated online, she quotes Werner Herzog: “We have to have our dark corners and the unexplained. We will become uninhabitable in a way an apartment will become uninhabitable if you illuminate every single dark corner.” Am I making my house uninhabitable, I wonder? It’s not as if this book leaves no recess unlit; it’s impossible to tell everything, let alone explain it. But in Neon Daze, there is an indiscriminate brightness. Perhaps I was afraid of the dark and needed the light on, regardless of how unflattering it was and who saw.
When my son was five months old I went back to work four days a week as a high school teacher and the writing stopped. All my energy was devoted to moving myself and my son backwards and forwards along the same path each day – to the childcare centre around the corner from home, then with the sluggish rush-hour traffic to school, from classroom to classroom in a trance, with a spell at lunchtime in the sickbay pumping fast before the bell rang, eating one-handed and apologising to the students who walked in on a teacher milking herself.
When my son was 14 months old, I took him to Wellington for a conference at Victoria University called ‘Poetry and the Essay’, where presenters spoke about the point at which the forms blurred – the possibilities for essayistic thought in a poem and poetic thought in an essay. While my parents cared for their grandson at an Airbnb in Miramar, I presented a paper on the evils of rubrics and templates, read aloud a couple of pages from one of the notebooks, and started to realise what I had been feeling since before that night in the hospital. My voice on the page can be desperate, manic, pained – adjectives you don’t want to associate with your mother. Mothering, I’d absorbed from antenatal classes, the internet, pop culture, high culture, history – all of it – mothering meant being stable, soft but firm, sensitive rather than vulnerable. There goes poetry, I hadn’t consciously thought but felt. There goes publicising my oddness.
During lunch at the conference, I told this anxiety to three other poets. One recommended Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, as a model of maternal discourse that directly addressed the question of how to write the intimate ethically – how to acknowledge the traumatic, difficult parts of early motherhood without impinging on your child’s, and partner’s freedom. Because, that was the second, sharper qualm: to write about myself was to write about my family. The idea of using my child or husband as material is sickening, as is the prospect of not writing at all. There was no cropping them out due to the extreme physical proximity of these months. But the distances between our perspectives remained. Sleeping within a few centimetres of each other, we were still seeing only through our own eyes – the newborn’s monochromatic view, the fatigue-addled father and doctor, the hormonal and sleep-deprived mother. And so, the record of the experience is partial, not even my perspective but a contracted version of me trying to collect pieces of what was happening.
The week after the conference, and a year after I stopped writing daily, I opened the document again and thought about editing. It was baggy – flabbily literal rather than taut, muscular, whatever adjective you like that describes a conventionally attractive text and body. The early postnatal entries were carrying extra weight, but later became bony and sparse – undernourished as calories turned into milk and were drained. Drastic cosmetic surgery could have tucked and tightened the loose lines, removed tedious repetition, sucked out the fat, but that would only have “fixed” the aesthetic flaws. Trickier to treat were what I saw as moral lapses: fury at my husband, total absorption with the baby at the expense of all else, griping about discomfort despite privilege. This narrator is not, the editor said, your “best self”. But part of the point, she implied, is the ugliness – there’s a lively value to this imperfection. Some entries read to me like a stained towelling dressing gown. To wear them in public would be dangerously eccentric. So, I put on some shoes; I added footnotes.
The footnotes were titled with infinitive verbs: to admit, to push, to eat, to care… An endless to-do list that I still haven’t stopped writing. I dwell on etymology; “‘Push’ is a relic of a word,” I wrote, “its root fittingly violent – from pel, meaning to thrust, strike and drive. Pell-mell, I think. But that is a different ‘pell’ – the pell that comes from ‘skin’ in French (peau) and ‘mell’ from melée, to mix. A confusion of skins.” If, above the footnote line, the text is about the physical body, then below the line is preoccupied with the abstract, with what it means to translate sensation into language. Both are concerned with origins, eggs and chickens; where does it all come from? After my one-year-old waved out to sea as I told him what was lapping at my shins, I looked up wafian, the Old English origin meaning to and fro. When my eighteen-month-old called the lamp a “light ladder”, I glowed. On an aeroplane, telling my two-year-old to hold the lollipop stick so his fingers wouldn’t get sticky, I wanted the dictionary. While the footnotes were written quickly too, in 10 or 20-minute sittings between interruptions, the head it came from was clearer, above the surface of the neonatal daze. “The book,” Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, “has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be.”
In her essay ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’, in the Sydney Review of Books, Maria Turmarkin admits to her own trepidations about her argument, which “comes from a place of love and unconcealed irritation”. Love, because she understands the purpose of this writing. Irritation, because – Turmarkin observes – often motherhood memoirs barricade women into categories and close off the experience that they purport to open up. “You would think that an emphasis on personal experience, on the contours of a singular life/soul/family, infused with lyricism and hyper-locatedness, is just what is needed to not keep re-erecting the same barricades. In fact, it could be that memoir in its present iteration is not a strong enough form to blast things open. What is required is formal innovation, hybridity of form, opening up of language, a getting at and through motherhood in unexpected ways.”
I read Tumarkin’s essay last year, two years after writing Neon Daze and a year after submitting it to the publisher. Hot and cold, I feared I had written The Wrong Sort of Motherhood Book. I still do. But, I also believe that, in its dressing-gown-and-shoes eccentricity, is it the only book I could have written about the first four months, and that I couldn’t have survived that time without writing this book. Neon Daze is thanks to my son, and my husband, and his parents, and my parents, and our friends – but mostly to my son, as much as my life in its current form is thanks to him. It is for him too. Right now, he’s proud of and perplexed by the dedication (‘What do you mean it’s for me? It’s your book’). The book belongs to him in the way that, as his mother, I belong to him. Both will no doubt embarrass him soon; both are full of love for him too. I hope this is enough. It is the best I can do, as his mother and myself.
Neon Daze, by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, $25) is available at Unity Books from November 14.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.